Sunday, January 15, 2017

Netflix review: Orange is the New Black
Netflix promotional poster for Orange is the New Black

A few years ago I listened to an episode of The Moth podcast where author Piper Kerman told a story about her time in prison. Kerman had been an upper middle class graduate of an all women's college, working as a PR person, when she was sentenced to prison for a previous drug smuggling conviction. At the end of the episode, the announcer mentioned that Kerman had written a book called Orange is the New Black about her experiences in prison, and that there would be a new series on Netflix created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds) based on a fictionalized version of that book.

We started watching the series and I honestly didn't have a lot of high expectations for it. Although it seemed possible from Kerman's Moth episode, I wasn't entirely sure if Kohan's take on the story would address issues like classism and racism. I felt slightly uncomfortable at the idea of being entertained by a story of women in prison if it did not address the problems inherent in the system.

However, I was pleasantly surprised, and as I've watched each season in turn, my respect for the show has grown. For one thing, it is consistently the best show on TV (Netflix, cable, whatever) that features such a diverse group of women. There is a wide range of races, ages, body types, sexual orientations, gender identities, social classes, and situations represented. It is so important to see such a vast range of women interacting with each other, forming friendships and relating to each other, rather than always having their stories filtered through the eyes of men, if they are told at all. It is something I absolutely love about the show.

And it does not shy away from some fairly intense issues. Some I can think of off the top of my head:

  • the overrepresentation of women of colour in prison
  • treatment of trans women in prison
  • abuse of power by guards
  • rape
  • rights of pregnant women in prison
  • racial profiling
  • homophobia
  • ageism
  • labour issues--treatment of prisoners as indentured labour for large corporations; treatment of guards' unions; privatization and for-profit prisons
  • the proliferation of prison as a moneymaking venture in the United States
  • treament of mentally ill prisoners
  • treatment of mentally ill people in society in general (thus causing some to end up in prison when it isn't the best place for them and they actually need treatment
The show isn't without its flaws (which are unfortunately kind of hard to talk about without revealing fairly significant plot points)--one way in which it could improve is to hire some writers of colour--but overall it is one of the best shows I have seen to discuss women's issues and to portray such a vibrantly diverse cast of characters. I am eagerly awaiting the next season.

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